Up and down the Kennebec Valley: Oak Grove School

The Oak Grove-Coburn school today, serving as the Maine Criminal Justice Academy.

by Mary Grow

We now digress – for a change – from descriptions of churches on the National Register of Historic Places to the Oak Grove School, because of its association with the Sophia D. Bailey Chapel discussed last week (and also known as the Oak Grove Chapel).

According to Raymond Manson and Elsia Holway Burleigh, whose history of the school was often cited last week, the Vassalboro and Fairfield Friends started Oak Grove School in February 1848. The authors provided a detailed description, with dialogue, of the crucial meeting.

They said wealthy mill-owner John D. Lang (1799-1879), of Vassalboro, hosted fellow residents Ebenezer Frye and Alton Page, Samuel Taylor, from North Fairfield, and Alden Sampson, from what is now Manchester. The men agreed to pay Lang’s son-in-law, Charles Osborne, $50 for about an acre of land.

Alma Pierce Robbins, in her Vassalboro history, said the year was 1840 and listed the men who bought land from Charles Osborn (without a final e) as Frye, Lang, Pope and Elder Sampson, all from Vassalboro, plus Taylor, from Fairfield.

Rufus Jones’ chapter on the Society of Friends in Kingsbury’s Kennebec County history listed the founders as Frye and Lang, from Vassalboro, Taylor, from Fairfield, and from Manchester Alden Sampson and Alton Pope; Jones dated their effort from “about 1850.”

The original school at left, and a three-story student boarding house.

The site of the school, as Jones described it, included a grove of oak trees on top of a hill – hence the name. From the hilltop, one could see down the Kennebec River to Augusta and beyond. Across the river, Mt. Adams and Mt. Washington rose above the lesser mountains of western Maine.

In addition to the view being a “constantly inspiring influence,” Jones wrote, the new school would be adjacent to the Friends Meeting House, and close to the wealthy men who each pledged $1,000 to start it.

Manson and Burleigh wrote that Frye was in charge of construction. He oversaw spending $2,500 for a 40-by-60-foot three-story wooden building on the hilltop above the Friends burying ground. The school’s first 16-week term began in December 1850, with William H. Hobby as the first principal.

The Manson and Burleigh history has a sketch of the building, surrounded by trees, with a steep roof topped by what looks like an eight-sided windowed cupola. A flight of at least a dozen steps runs all the way across the 40-foot end, leading to the front wall with a door at either end and a window between (the same pattern as China’s Pond Meeting House; see the photo in the July 8 issue of The Town Line).

Originally meant only for the children of Quaker families, Oak Grove School quickly allowed all students to attend. Nonetheless, it did not attract enough to cover costs – because there were too few nearby homes where students could board, Manson and Burleigh said – and Oak Grove School closed in 1856.

Immediately, another group of Friends led by Eli Jones, from China, began working to re-open the school. They raised $15,000 from Friends all over Maine, got a new legislative charter in April 1857 for Oak Grove Seminary, bought another acre of land on the south side of the road and built a three-story student boarding house and opened the new school in December 1857, with Eli Jones serving as principal for the first year because the oversight committee could not agree on anyone else.

From 1873, the year the Maine legislature required towns to provide high schools, until July 31, 1918, Oak Grove officials usually contracted with the town to be its high school. In 1873, Kingsbury wrote, Vassalboro appropriated $500 for a high school at East Vassalboro, but because of Oak Grove Seminary did not need to spend it.

In the fall of 1862 a gymnasium was added near the boarding house. The school building burned down in 1880; classes were moved to the boarding house until a new school was built beside it, across Oak Grove Road from the original, and dedicated Nov. 24, 1885.

An arsonist burned down the school building and the boarding house on Aug. 31, 1887. The 14-year-old nephew of Principal Charles H. Jones died when he went back to retrieve a watch his father had just given him.

Principal Jones promptly oversaw conversion of the gymnasium into makeshift classrooms. On Sept. 18, 1887, that building was also torched.

Manson and Burleigh described how the arsonist, a 15-year-old boarding student, was traced, arrested, tried and convicted. His motives: he was not allowed to take the courses he wanted and he didn’t like the Oak Grove food or the Town of Vassalboro.

A new and larger school building was dedicated Sept. 5, 1888, including classrooms and laboratories, offices, a library, a kitchen and dining room and housing for students and for the principal. Manson and Burleigh specifically mention the central heating and the “bathrooms with hot and cold running water.”

Photos show an enormous wooden building in several interlocking sections. Much of it was three stories high on top of a full basement with large windows (one photo shows three stories throughout, another looks as though one section had two full stories plus a windowed attic above the basement rooms). A new gymnasium was built nearby.

Charles M. Bailey, of Win­throp, paid for the construction; money raised by Quakers throughout Maine became an endowment fund. The building was named Bailey Hall, and in 1888 the school became Oak Grove Seminary and Bailey Institute.

Oak Grove Seminary seems to have prospered until World War I, under the ownership of the New England Yearly Meeting of Friends. It ac­quired additional land and more buildings – a power plant in 1906, a new gymnasium in 1908 after the one built in 1888 collapsed under its snow-weighted roof on March 17, 1907.

Enrollment declined beginning in 1914. Manson and Burleigh blamed the war, and also quoted from a 1915 report by the State of Maine Supe­rintendent of Schools saying more students were opting for public high schools.

In the winter of 1917 the school’s “board of managers” (Manson and Burleigh’s undefined terminology) voted to “lay down” (close) the school, apparently without consulting staff. Staff persuaded them to reconsider until they explored options.

Top, Robert Everett Owen and Eva Pratt Owen when they took over the school while in their 20s, and, above, in later years.

One option was new management. In 1918, Manson and Burleigh wrote, the Board of Trustees hired Robert Everett Owen and Eva (Pratt) Owen, who became joint principals and served until 1968.

Aware of the school’s history, one of the Owens’ many achievements was building the fire-proof brick buildings that form what is now often called “the castle.” When the central building was finished in 1941, the school’s trustees voted to recognize their long-time principals by naming it Owen Hall. The Owens were pleased, but asked the trustees not to publicize the decision, and the new building was called the Administration Building.

On June 7, 1975, after both Owens had died, the trustees of what was by then Oak Grove-Coburn School held a ceremony in Bailey Chapel to publicly rename the building Owen Hall. As part of the observance, Betsy Palmer Eldridge, O.G. ’55, wrote a summary of the Owens’ lives and service.

The Owens were in their twenties when they took over management of the declining school. They had both graduated from Oak Grove, where they met, in 1910 and gone to Colby College, in Waterville. Robert graduated from Colby in 1914 and later got a master’s degree in education from Harvard.

Eva had to leave college to save her failing eyesight. She held brief principals’ jobs at South Thomaston High School and at Erskine Academy, in South China, before she and Robert were married in the summer of 1914.

Eldridge wrote that they spent the next four years at Erskine, Robert as the principal and Eva as the girls’ dean, before they came to Oak Grove in 1918. They promptly began sprucing up Bailey Hall and soliciting students.

In 1925, the Board of the New England Yearly Meeting of Friends accepted an education committee’s recommendation that Oak Grove become a girls’ school (and Moses Brown School in Rhode Island become a boys’ school). The goal was to make them specialized schools, distinguished from the co-ed public high schools that were increasingly numerous.

The Owens supported the change, Eldridge wrote. They reported at the end of the first year that enrollment was larger than expected, and “the girls are high-minded and wholesome, and it has been a joy to work with them. They are more contented and doing finer school work than the girls did during the seven years of co-education.”

The Owens’ building project began in 1928 with the dormitory named Briggs Hall (Eldridge gave no explanation for the name). It was followed by the 1938-39 Recitation Building, connected to the east end of the dormitory by a small arcade.

The Administration Building and a second dormitory, later called Senior House, were added in 1940-41, connected by a second, longer arcade students called “the tunnel.” These new buildings provided enough space so that the 1888 Bailey Hall could be demolished in 1942.

Smaller additions were made on the grounds in the 1950s. One was a new cinder-block barn; Eva Owen had always supported the Oak Grove riding program, which she herself taught for some years.

In 1962, Eldridge wrote, the Science Building “completed the Quadrangle by filling in the gap between the Administration Building and Senior House.”

A gymnasium and auditorium were also added in 1962. Eldridge summarized that over 50 years, the Owens had developed Oak Grove from “three buildings on twenty-eight acres to eleven buildings on more than five hundred acres of woods, ponds, lawns and gardens.”

Eldridge called the financing of so many buildings “a mystery” and attributed it primarily to Eva Owens’ enthusiastic sharing of school life with parents, alumnae and others interested. She was famous for writing long friendly letters that did not ask for money, but motivated people to donate anyway.

After their retirement, the Owens continued to live in their apartment in the Administration Building, Eldridge wrote. Robert Owen died July 11, 1973; his wife died Sept. 20, 1974. Both are buried in Green Lawn Rest Cemetery, in Clinton, her home town.

The last sentence of Manson and Briggs’ 1965 history reads, “There will never again be a question of the ‘laying down’ of the [Oak Grove] school.”

However, as mentioned last week, the Owens lived to see the 1970 merger of Oak Grove School with Coburn Classical Institute, a co-ed high school in Waterville, with a history going back to the 1820s. Oak Grove-Coburn School in turn closed in 1989, and the state bought the Owens’ buildings and now uses them as the Maine Criminal Justice Academy.

Main sources

Eldridge, Betsy Palmer Owen Hall Pamphlet June 1975.
Kingsbury, Henry D., ed., Illustrated History of Kennebec County Maine 1625-1892 (1892).
Manson, Raymond R., and Elsia Holway Burleigh, First Seventy Years of Oak Grove Seminary ((1965).
Robbins, Alma Pierce, History of Vassalborough Maine 1771 1971 n.d. (1971).

Websites, miscellaneous.

China to hold WindowDressers workshop this fall

Volunteers prepare window inserts at the 2019 WindowDressers workshop, two years ago, in Vassalboro. (photo courtesy of Vassalboro Historical Society)

by Eric W. Austin

The China for a Lifetime Committee is busy planning for a WindowDressers workshop that will take place this November 3 – 7. The initiative is a volunteer-led, “barn-raising” effort to construct low-cost “window inserts” to reduce residential energy bills.

The window inserts are constructed of pine wood frames, covered in thin plastic film and can usually be ordered in natural wood or painted white, however, because of pandemic-related difficulties in the lumber industry, they may not be available in white this year. (Please inquire at the time you place your order.) There is a maximum order limit of 10 frames, and no minimum. Orders are open to residents in China, Vassalboro, Palermo, Albion and Windsor.

The price of the window inserts will vary depending on the size of the frame requested, but generally range from $30-$70 per frame for natural pine, with an additional $5-$10 if painted white. There is financial help available for those who qualify.

The committee is working with the statewide WindowDressers organization, described on their website as a “volunteer-driven non-profit organization dedicated to helping Maine residents reduce heating costs, fossil fuel consumption, and CO-2 emissions by lowering the amount of heat loss through windows.” WindowDressers is based out of Rockland.

The China for a Lifetime Committee, a local group which supports community initiatives aimed at improving the quality of life for residents, has been meeting for several months to discuss having a WindowDressers workshop in China this fall. Vassalboro hosted a workshop two years ago, and the China for a Lifetime Committee had discussed organizing a workshop in China last year before plans were scrapped because of the pandemic.

As the workshop will take place during the first week of November, orders should be placed no later than October 1. Committee volunteers will need to visit your home to take window measurements which will then be sent to the WindowDressers organization, who will cut the wood for the frames. All volunteers doing the measuring will be vaccinated for COVID-19, and can also wear a mask if the homeowner requests. Measurers need to complete their task and submit data to WindowDressers by mid-October, so to avoid “crunch time”, please make sure to get your order in and set up a measuring appointment as soon as possible.

There is a great need for local community volunteers in order to make this a successful WindowDressers workshop. It is requested that anyone ordering frames also sign up for a four-hour shift on one of the workshop days. The committee is also looking for anyone willing to supply food to the teams working during the workshop.

To submit an order for window inserts, or to volunteer, please call the China town office at 445-2014, send an email to the China for a Lifetime Committee at chinaforalifetime@gmail.com, or visit the WindowDressers website and fill out the form located at windowdressers.org/sign-up-for-inserts.

For more information about the China for a Lifetime Committee, please visit their website at chinaforalifetime.com.

Vassalboro Historical Society to hold local art contest

Vassalboro Historical Society

The Vassalboro Historical Society is requesting your original artwork for use as the Society’s thank you notes and to have available for sale at the Society. Entries must be received by August 31, 2021.

The artwork (drawn, painted, or photographed) must feature historical buildings and sites of Vassalboro (stop by the museum for ideas – we have lots of photographs) which are suitable for printing on 4 1⁄4” x 5 1⁄2” note cards.

Four entries will be selected and artists will receive: $100 for first place; $75 for second place; $50 for third place; and $25 for fourth place.


Send your artwork or photograph to ART CONTEST @ VHS, PO Box #13, North Vassalboro, ME 04962, or by email to: vhspresident@gmail.com.

If you would like your artwork returned, please include a self-addressed, stamped envelope.

Three Mile Pond Association president presented with appreciation award

Tom Whittaker (contributed photo)


by Scott Pierz
President, China Region Lakes Alliance

As President of the China Region Lakes Alliance (CRLA), it was my privilege to be the keynote speaker at the Three Mile Pond (TMP) Association’s annual meeting held on Saturday, July 10, 2021. The TMP Association is comprised of residents of China, Vassalboro and Windsor, Maine.

An audience of around 55 people attended and information was presented about the programs offered by the CRLA, including its Courtesy Boat Inspection (CBI) program, the Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) Program, as well as the statewide LakeSmart Program.

During the final portion of the meeting a formal presentation was made to the TMP Association President, Thomas Whittaker, for his leadership and commitment to the TMP Association.

Seen in the photo is Tom Whittaker receiving a hand-made woodcut of Three Mile Pond and its watershed created by George Gunning, a master woodcarver who, along with his wife Donna, have been members of the Three Mile Pond Association for over 50 years. Seen in the background is Bob Moore, TMP Vice President.

Congratulations Tom Whittaker and the rest of the TMP Association’s Board of Directors for their great work!

Mid-Maine Chamber golf fundraiser draws many players

First place gross, Damon’s Beverage, Jeff Damon, Mark McGowan, Flint Collier and Luke Collier. (contributed photo)

Central Maine’s most prize-laden golf tournament fundraiser was held under clear skies on Monday, June 21, at Natanis Golf Course, in Vassalboro. Thirty-five teams took part in the shotgun start scramble.

Nearly 50 businesses provided sponsorships or in-kind donations for the tournament.

“We were thrilled with the participation in this year’s event once again – and had a waiting list of teams wishing to participate,” said Kim Lindlof, president & CEO of Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce. “We were also happy that the weather cooperated, with a beautiful Chamber of Commerce day of sunshine and an enjoyable day for all involved.”

Prize Winners:

Summer Sizzler BBQ Package: Gary Levesque, New York Life.

50/50 Winner: Andrew Dailey, Bar Harbor Bank & Trust.

First Place Gross Team Score: Damon’s Beverage—Jeff Damon, Mark McGowan, Flint Collier, Luke Collier.

Second Place Gross Team Score: Pine Tree Cellular—Marc Girard, Glen Pound, Tim Merwin, Trevor Olivadoti.

Third Place Gross Team Score: Skowhegan Savings—Brian Fitzpatrick, Sam Hight, Adam Orser, Lou Hight.

First Place Net Team Score: Bar Harbor Bank & Trust—Jennifer Seekins, Jeff Charland, Mark Breton, Andrew Dailey.

Second Place Net Team Score: Maine State Credit Union-Team 2—Matt Doane, Michelle Martin, Keith McPherson.

Third Place Net Team Score: Pepsi Co.—Tony Dessent, Mark Watson, Roger Williams, Chris Low.

Longest Drive—Hole #15: Male: Adam Orser—Skowhegan Savings; Female: Theresa Thompson—Standard Waterproofing.

Closest to the Pin—Hole #4 and #7: Steve Whitney—Cornerstone Insurance.

Closest to the Pin—Hole #10: Jeff Meinhert—Paul White Co.

Closest to the Pin—Hole #13: Trevor Fogarty—AAA Northern New England.

Highest Team Score: Standard Waterproofing—Isaac Thompson, Theresa Thompson, Tom Michaud, Marie Michaud.

  Chairman of the Chamber Golf Classic Committee, Rick Whalen added, “We would like to thank all of the area businesses for their participation – whether with posting a team, providing volunteers or in-kind donations, or being a sponsor. Your support makes this a successful fundraiser.”

The Mid-Maine Chamber Golf Classic is made possible by major sponsors Central Maine Power and Maine State Credit Union and multiple additional sponsors.

First place net, Bar Harbor Bank & Trust, Jennifer Seekins, Jeff Charland, Mark Breton and Andrew Dailey. Names not necessarily in order. (contributed photo)

Vassalboro selectmen’s meeting rescheduled

by Mary Grow

The Vassalboro selectmen’s July meeting has been rescheduled to 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 14. It had been planned for July 15.

Lake Association Annual Meetings 2021

Image Credit: chinalakeassociation.org

2021 Lake Association Annual Meetings

*   *   *


Saturday, July 31 • 8:30 – 11:30 a.m.
China Middle School


SAT., AUGUST 14, 9 a.m.
Vassalboro Community School


*   *   *

To be included in this list, contact The Town Line at townline@fairpoint.net.

Mr. E is moving on!

Victor Esposito

Victor Esposito delivers message to the community

by Victor Esposito

As Bob Dylan once said during the ‘60s: “The times they are a-changing!”

However you want to look at it, everything changes, and change is good. You just have to be open to that change and when it is ready to happen and you’re ready to let it happen.

It is not a rumor, but a fact that I will be changing jobs. I will be finishing up 20 years here at Vassalboro Community School, and moving onto another JMG position. After 40-plus years in the classroom (I started in the mid ‘70s), I have been afforded an opportunity to be given a JMG position working out of the Alfond Boys & Girls Club, in Waterville. I will be working on a summer enrichment program, and during the school year will be developing an after school academic recovery program for both high school and middle school students. I am excited for the opportunity and yet saddened to be leaving Vassalboro and my students. It has been an amazing journey with so many great memories.

There has been our JMG core program with the best of the best kids and what they were able to achieve over the 20 years; The sixth grade Page Day at the State Capitol, Leadership trip, Scavenger hunts, and career visits to businesses in Portland during Urban Adventure. Students running the concession stand, outside snack shack, and numerous local community service projects. The Career Exploration that taught students how to fill out job applications, research future careers, write resumes, cover letters, listen to the many guest speakers, and take part in mock interviews.

The many Ski/Snowboard trips, and kids and families that learned or relearned how to ski. The rock climbing program and kids who competed at the state level. The golf program with never ending support from Natanis Golf Course. The students who learned how to tie flies, and fly fish, along with the many kids learning to play chess; along with most recently this year fifth graders learning to build model boats.

So many great memories.

This is not only a letter going out into the Vassalboro Community, but also to the surrounding towns; Waterville, Winslow and any of the other surrounding. This is also meant to be a very heartfelt thank you to everyone, my students, parents, guardians, civic folks, business people, and beyond. There have been so many people who have helped me to do the kind of things I was able to do at Vassalboro Community School, as a JMG Master Specialist.

The support of students, parents, guardians, grandparents, the three amazing Principals I have had the honor of serving under; (Kevin Michaud, Dianna Gram, and now Dr. Megan Allen). The supportive VCS staff, and all my JMG family members. All the surrounding high schools that our kids can attend.

In the community there were people like town manager Mary Sabins, Ray Breton, business entrepreneur, and numerous business people. In the outer lying towns there were people like Tom Davis (Are You Ready To Party) Chris Guance (Central Maine Motors), Ann Lindeman (Bangor Savings), Kim Lindolf (Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce), Mary Dyer (FAME), Jill Jameson (Junior Achievement), Angie Miers (Army Recruiter), Tanya Verzoni (New Dimension Credit Union), Amy Leclair (Johnny’s Selected Seed), and the list could go on. Thank you to all!

My daughter Brittany wrote a paper while she was doing her master’s degree at the University of New England a long time ago. It was titled My Father, and it started with a quote from Emerson, “Do not go where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” I believe I have left a trail here at Vassalboro Community School, and at JMG (Jobs For Maine’s Graduates), one for which I am proud.

This is not goodbye, but rather see you all later.

Vassalboro recreation committee, selectmen talk about reorganized programs

by Mary Grow

Members of Vassalboro’s Recreation Committee joined Vassalboro selectmen at their June 24 meeting to talk about a reorganized, post-pandemic recreation program, policy changes needed, town ballfields and related topics.

Town Manager Mary Sabins said she attended the recreation committee meeting earlier in the week at which committee members discussed issues to be brought to selectmen.

In the past, the committee has had a single chairman who received a small stipend. Talk of hiring a recreation director has so far gone nowhere because of cost considerations.

Sabins referred to Brian Stanley, who attended the selectboard meeting, and Becky Jenkins, who was not present, as the committee’s two point people. Stanley had a list of concerns and questions selectmen discussed, with assistance from committee members Mary Presti and Melissa Olson.

The first issue was providing security cameras at the ballfields, to deter or identify unwanted users. Selectmen and committee members came up with numerous options they will explore.

Committee members are also concerned about parents who smoke while their children play. Joe Presti said state law bans smoking in children’s recreation areas; his wife asked if the committee therefore cannot designate a smoking area.

Dogs are a lesser problem. Committee members asked about liability if a dog present during recreation-sponsored activities were to bite someone.

Stanley and Presti said ballfield signs banning smoking and dogs were stolen months ago.

The committee owns a gazebo, bought by the prior director as an auxiliary refreshment building. Current members said they do not share her purpose and have no plans to use the structure. They will send Sabins more information as they debate whether it could be part of the proposed streamside park on Route 32, should be returned if possible or might have another use.

The main financial issue Stanley mentioned was easy to resolve. Committee members want to save money by buying equipment and supplies at a variety of different places. They proposed a committee credit card; Sabins suggested instead opening committee accounts with more suppliers, and Presti promised an updated list of the places they shop.

Selectman Chris French asked Stanley to keep track of the hours he and Jenkins spend on recreation program business, to give selectmen an idea of hours and compensation for a future paid director.

One advantage of a paid director would be that he or she would presumably work for more than one year, providing continuity for the program. Presti suggested amending the committee by-laws to provide for directors elected for staggered multi-year terms, instead of a year at a time, would have the same benefit.

The director Sabins envisions would provide programs year-round for residents of all ages. Recreation committee members have lots of program ideas, Presti said; they need someone to implement them.

Their summer program, listed on the town website, includes three movie nights beginning at dusk at the ballfields. Twelve was presented June 25; Sonic is scheduled for July 16; and Jumanji: Next Level is scheduled for Aug. 13.

In addition to the recreation program discussion, selectmen heard an update from Codes Officer Paul Mitnik, with supplementary comments from Fire Chief Walker Thompson, on an ongoing construction project at the former church on Priest Hill Road, in North Vassalboro.

As the fiscal year drew to a close, selectmen reappointed board and committee members for 2021-22 and approved the additional lists of appointments made by Sabins and other town officers. French declined to be reappointed to the Conservation Commission.

Now that voters have approved Vassalboro’s Marijuana Business Ordinance, selectmen need to set licensing fees for existing marijuana businesses in town. After discussing the wide range of fees other area towns charge, and the amount of time they estimate Mitnik, Sabins and other officials will need to administer and enforce the ordinance, they postponed a decision to their July 15 meeting.

Mitnik said the deadline for owners of existing businesses to apply for a town license is Aug. 7, 60 days after voters approved the ordinance. He has developed an application form and notified those who need to apply.

Mitnik, who retired for the third time this spring, only to be rehired when his successor left after a week and a half, is working only two days a week. Sabins said she had received one application for the position so far.

The next regular Vassalboro selectmen’s meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Thursday, July 15.

On Thursday, July 1, the town office staff host a public retirement party for bookkeeper Jean Poulin; residents are invited to stop in that afternoon. Selectmen agreed on an appropriate retirement gift.

Vassalboro planners to meet July 6

by Mary Grow

Vassalboro Planning Board members are scheduled to meet at 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 6, at the Vassalboro town office, with a single item on their agenda.

Peter Reny has applied to place a mobile home on the gravel pad that was the site of a former mobile home at 1100 Main Street in North Vassalboro, in the Outlet Stream shoreland zone. Reny received a permit for a new mobile home in August 2017 that has expired, Codes Officer Paul Mitnik said.